Guillermo E. Biaggi, a general vice president of the Seventh-day Adventist world church, has rearranged a desk in his office to showcase an intricately painted Orthodox icon.
The icon, which depicts Mary with the baby Jesus, is a gift from an elderly woman named Valentina in Ukraine. She presented it to Biaggi as she was baptized with 16 other people in the eastern city of Kharkiv.
“I brought it to my desk here at the General Conference as a symbol of triumph and victory in Christ,” Biaggi said. “Valentina was very attached to her Orthodox practices, and this icon was a cherished treasure. She gave it up for Christ.”
Valentina is among 135 people who were baptized after evangelistic meetings at 372 sites across Ukraine in February and March, church leaders said. More people are studying the Bible in preparation for baptism, and additional evangelistic meetings are planned for the next six months. In all, 1,000 meetings will be held as part of a major evangelistic endeavor in eight countries of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.
At the Kharkiv church, Valentina accompanied her daughter, an Adventist, to the evening meetings led by Biaggi. She decided to commit her life to Christ through baptism on the last day of the meetings, Sabbath, Feb. 25.
But before going to church that Sabbath morning, the daughter told her mother, “We have to get rid of your icon, according to the Second Commandment! Let’s throw it away.”
The Second Commandment says, in part, “You shall not make for yourself a carved image — any likenessof anythingthatisin heaven above, or thatisin the earth beneath, or thatisin the water under the earth;you shall not bow down to them nor serve them” (Exodus 20:4-5, NKJV).
Valentina, however, couldn’t bring herself to toss her beloved icon, encased in a wooden box with a swinging glass door, into the garbage.
Finally, the daughter suggested, “Why don’t we give the icon to Elder Biaggi as a present?”
“So, they wrapped the icon in a soft cloth and gave it to me,” Biaggi said.
Valentina’s decision is a reminder to all Christians that they need to remove any barriers between themselves and Christ, Biaggi said. Citing Adventist Church cofounder Ellen G. White, he said, “There is nothing that Satan fears so much as that the people of God shall clear the way by removing every hindrance, so that the Lord can pour out His Spirit upon a languishing church and an impenitent congregation.” The passage comes from White’s book “Messages to Young People,” page 133.
Church leaders told of many inspiring stories during the evangelistic meetings in Ukraine, which were led by Ukrainians as well as people from the United States, Mexico, Argentina, and Brazil. A total of 3,523 people of other faiths attended the meetings.
“I had the opportunity to visit many of the sites, and I was blessed by what I witnessed,” said Ramon Canals, who oversaw the meetings in Ukraine as a Total Member Involvement evangelism coordinator for the Adventist world church. “Each individual story is inspiring. This was truly TMI.”
Total Member Involvement (TMI) is a world church initiative to encourage each of the church’s 20 million members to share Jesus with someone else.
A Divided Village
In Pozharky, a small village in northwestern Ukraine, local church members decided to hold their first evangelistic meetings in two decades. The village is divided into two parts — Adventist and Orthodox — and each faith community has lived apart from the other for years. Even the village cemetery has two separate sections.
“For 20 years, there have not been any evangelistic programs here because the Adventists believed that it was not possible to overcome the stereotypes of their fellow villagers,” said Dmitriy Zubkov, Adventist Mission director of the Adventist Church’s Euro-Asia Division, whose territory includes Ukraine. “But this year after serious prayer preparation, the congregation decided to act.”
A regional church leader, Alexander Moskovchuk, led the evening meetings at the local church. Church members offered courses on Nordic walking, a total body version of walking performed with specially designed poles resembling ski poles. Every day at least 15 Orthodox guests and a similar number of children flocked to the church.
“The program caused a great stir in the village,” Zubkov said. “When the local Orthodox priest saw this, he announced that he would start holding daily services at his church. It turns out that when the children of God begin to do something, it forces the representatives of other faiths to become more active.”
The evangelistic meetings also have been a blessing to church members and have encouraged them to contribute financially to the church’s work, said Michael Kaminskiy, president of the Euro-Asia Division.
“This may sound odd, but when church members see that the church is busy with its mission, they give the money needed to complete the church’s work,” Kaminskiy said. “Church members are the most willing to give when they hear the undiluted gospel.”
Food Baskets and Bibles
TMI was on full display at the Kharkiv Central Church. Two medical doctors took turns presenting short health seminars before Biaggi spoke. One of them, Alexei Oparin, offered free consultations and ultrasound tests every day except Sabbath. The other, Peter Popelishko, offered healthy smoothies made of bananas, spinach, apples, and water.
Those who showed up for at least 10 meetings received a food basket prepared by church elders Alexander Razumniy and Vitaliy Begas. Ninety-nine guests qualified for the baskets packed with nonperishable food, Biaggi said.
Church elder Gennadiy Chursin distributed more than 800 copies of “Steps to Christ,” “The Only Hope” and other books to guests. The church’s pastor, Mikhail Mikitiuk, provided illustrated Bibles to the children. Church elder Ruslan Simonyenko coordinated the greeting of guests.
During each meeting, a team of female prayer warriors met to pray. Other church members coordinated transportation for guests, engaged in health outreach, and played special music during the meetings.
Ivan Ryapolov, assistant education director for the Euro-Asia Division, interpreted Biaggi’s daily presentations into Russian, the widely spoken language in the region.
“This really was teamwork for the glory of God,” Biaggi said.
Daily attendance averaged 125 people, 75 percent of whom had fled from a three-year armed conflict in nearby eastern Ukraine, according to figures released by the Ukrainian Union Conference. But on some days, attendance swelled to 350.
On the final Sabbath, Stanislav Nosov, president of Ukraine Union Conference, encouraged the 17 people who were baptized to remain faithful to Jesus Christ. In addition to the 17 baptisms, about 75 people committed to study the Bible two to three times a week after the meetings ended.
“We are praying for the Holy Spirit to help them to make a decision to accept Christ as their personal Savior and to follow Him,” Biaggi said.